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Lessons from a cold night of death

Uttaran Das Gupta 

Sunita Narain and others, edited
Down to Earth

162 pages; Rs 400

The home page of the website for Make in India - the principle project of the newly elected National Democratic Alliance government to attract foreign investment - displays its logo: the silhouette of a lion, with mechanical wheels within it. An introductory text asserts: "There's never been a better time to make in India." During its election campaign, the Bharatiya Janata Party had promised to open the floodgates for foreign investors. Make in India is an effort to make good the promise, and the initial response from the global community has been positive.

The heady euphoria should, however, be tempered with a look at the country's not-so-fortunate history with foreign investment. And nothing could serve as a more sobering reminder than the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal gas leak.

On the night of December 2 and early morning of December 3, 1984, the leak of the fatal methyl isocyanate from Union Carbide's factory in Bhopal claimed more than 5,000 lives. According to experts, more than half a million people still suffer from the after-effects of the exposure. The 30th anniversary of one of the worst industrial disasters in the world has spawned innumerable articles in newspapers and magazines, and even a film - Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain, starring Martin Sheen as Warren Anderson, the recently deceased former chief executive officer of Union Carbide, who was declared a fugitive by Indian courts in a case related to the disaster but was not extradited by the United States.

Bhopal Gas Tragedy: After 30 Years - published by Down to Earth, the fortnightly of non-governmental organisation Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) - would have been part of the crowd had it not been for the CSE's deep investment in the issue. The organisation has been conducting research and publishing records on different aspects - legal, social and scientific - of the "continuing disaster" for years. This book is a part of that process, enriched by years of engagement, and not a one-time product, hurriedly put together.

The production quality of the book is proof enough of this. Printed on good-quality paper, in red and black fonts, the erudite matter is made immensely readable by detailed charts, diagrams and poignant black-and-white pictures. It uses anecdotes and analysis, reminiscences and reportage to focus critical light on the criminal negligence leading to the disaster, the chaotic response of the administration, the years of apathy that added insult to injury, the prevaricating tactics used to stave off justice and the prevalent threat from the toxic waste yet to be cleared from the abandoned Union Carbide plant in Bhopal.

After a "blow-by-blow" account of the first 15 days after the tragedy - written by CSE founder and Down to Earth editor the late Anil Agarwal, who was in Bhopal at the time - the second section, "Past in Present", extends for 37 pages, full of recollections of people who have witnessed the tragedy and its after-effects for the past three decades. While such recollections - published by the thousands everywhere - do tend to get a bit repetitive, the human tragedy never loses any of its poignancy.

For instance, Farzana, a survivor of the leak who suffers from panic attacks and whose younger son was born with deformed legs, says: "At times, my husband and I go out for a stroll towards the factory, and we throw stones at the wall. We convince ourselves that we are performing jamarat (stoning the devil in Mecca)." Or Mohammed Naseeruddin, a resident of a colony built on a Union Carbide waste dump, who insists that journalists and social activists visiting his home drink water, explaining: "If they don't drink this water, how will they know the condition we live in?" A tactic reminiscent of the ploy used by Erin Brockovich (played by Julia Roberts) in the eponymous 2000 film to intimidate negotiators from Pacific Gas and Electric, who come to her office offering a paltry compensation package for the residents of Hinkley, California, suffering the effect of groundwater contamination from the company's carcinogenic hexavalent chromium.

But unlike the film, where the residents are awarded $333 million as compensation, the survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy have only been at the receiving end of false promises of succeeding governments, corruption in compensation distribution and disappointment in legal courts. The abandoned Union Carbide plant in Bhopal is still full of toxic waste, with too little being done to dispose of it safely, even as it leaks into the groundwater, creating a potential for a greater catastrophe. In fact, experts are still trying to figure out the composition of the cocktail of gases that choked Bhopal on that cold night so long ago, making the care of the victims a William Tell game in the dark at best.

A recent article, with the headline "Narendra Modi, Favoring Growth in India, Pares Back Environmental Rules", in The New York Times claims that the ministry of environment and forests is revising the pollution index and that regulatory burdens that often inhibit industries would be cleared soon. Perhaps a book like this, brought out by a leading advocacy organisation, would succeed in making policymakers reflect harder before they open the doors to another Bhopal. Though the facts and figures are laid on a little too thickly to engage a lay reader and a few editing errors mar the reading experience, this is an important book for our times.

It reminds us that the mechanical lion that serves as the logo for Make in India could soon become the mechanical death's head - a popular icon representing the Bhopal tragedy, published in this book - crushing a hapless human with its teeth.

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First Published: Thu, December 11 2014. 21:25 IST